In the NY Times Magazine’s 2007 roundup, the food page did a tribute to Peg Bracken — and they ran the Braised-Chicken-and-Artichoke Casserole. This was one of the first party dishes I ever made — I was fifteen or sixteen and my mother was very fond of the I Hate to Cook CookBook. I was so psyched to find this recipe — I remember it so vividly! Sauteeing off the chicken, then making the simple veloute with the mushrooms and sherry and chicken broth. Tucking the artichoke hearts in between the chicken pieces and pouring the sauce over — and the magical way it made the whole house smell delicious.
Well, it wasn’t exactly a house. My mother at that point was renting a funny little modernist bachelor pad by the Bath and Tennis club in the town where I grew up. There were two of them — funny little cubic buildings split in half vertically — so each cube had two-story apartment faced with glass on the front and back sides. The ground floor was open, with a tidy little steel galley kitchen that could be closed off with a sliding door. There was a spiral staircase to the second floor where there were two bedrooms and a bath. Like most of those early modernist buildings, the glass was single-pane, and those apartments were cold in the winter.
We lived with our dad in high school, and I made this recipe one weekend at Mom’s house. It was winter, and cold, and the smell of sherry and chicken and mushrooms and artichokes was delicous. It came out of the oven all brown and chickeny. It was one of the first cooking triumphs I ever had. This funny little recipe is a kind of Proust’s madeleine for me — one of the first things I cooked that made it clear to me that cooking could change the tenor of a winter’s day, could take a Sunday afternoon characterized by football and torpor and homework undone and transform it with a real dinner. Dinner that tasted and smelled delicious. Dinner that was transformational.
So thanks Peg Bracken. Thanks for teaching me that I could cook. For teaching me that cooking can change the way a day goes, if not change the way a life goes.